reposting this because I finally rewatched the movie over the weekend.
There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones – there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not – may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance – discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field – sleep with him in the cabin – feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave – learn his secret thoughts – thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night – converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves.
– Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853).
When we first meet Solomon Northup, he is nearing the end of his journey, most of the horrors that have befallen him are behind him. He has by this point in time been moved around several times through rural Louisiana; he has faced beatings, whippings, death, despair, sickness, death once more, and then again and again; but, when we first lay eyes upon this learned man from the North, who, by horrible circumstance, is thrust deep in to the heart of the boiling, bubbling cruelty that lies at the heart of the deep South, circa 1852, he is suffering from the worst cruelty of all: hope. Hope in that the letter he is writing – the ink made painstakingly from berries, ones that he has smuggled himself from his own meager dinner – will reach the family he was so cruelly stolen away from; hope that after all those twelve-odd years of being under the horrible, hateful eye of “that peculiar institution,” the light at the end of the tunnel – apologies for trying to bring a dull cliché across your loving eyes, dear readers – is really real, and his long nightmare is finally coming to an end. We see this same scene twice in the narrative, and it is only by our second glance at our hero’s feverish writing by candlelight (the berries boiled and ready for the smuggled page) that we realize how dear and fragile our very own freedom is.
At this very moment I am writing to you from the comfort of my couch, music on, windows open, and I know that as I go to sleep I can wake whenever I damn well please, tomorrow holding all the promise of getting to type, type, type away again and again, writing for as long as I want at whatever time I wanted. It was only when I was a child that I cherished my secret affairs with the written word: long nights bent over a book, or my typewriter, and these were just the early days of my work, and the early years are always the fondest – oh, the fucking effort I would put in to muffling the sound of my typewriter, knowing that if their clack-clack noise betrayed me, I’d be faced with a set of pissed off parents. The writing was more enjoyable knowing that I was doing so in secrecy. And what if I had to use those words to gain my own freedom?? would my lack of talent rise knowing my life hung in the balance?? would I hold words closer and dearer than I already do know? My heart says “not impossible” but my mind says I could always hold them closer. They are sometimes written in my own blood.
Tight is sometimes not tight enough.
This question of freedom lies at the very heart of Steve McQueen’s brilliant & harrowing adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave, which, as I’m sure you’re aware, won the Academy Award for Best Picture less than a week ago (I’m nothing if not an opportunist, you see). Consider: at the beginning of Solomon Northup’s terrifying journey – in a linear sense, that is – he is an articulate, intelligent, and free black man living in Saratoga, New York, with his beautiful wife and two children. The year is 1841. Note: 1841 just so happens to be the same year as the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous Amistad decision. Solomon, enticed by an offer to travel to Washington, D.C., and play music, the offer tendered by two (seemingly) kind white men putting together a traveling show. Looking to supplement his family’s income, Solomon accepts their offer. This fateful night would be the last time he would see his family for twelve years. These two young men are con-artists, nothing more than evil slave-traders in disguise, and after drugging Solomon they sell him into slavery. Having no rights and stripped of his name, not to mention no way of petitioning the courts, his journey into the deep, dark heart of slavery begins – he is now a slave in a system that is as cruel as it is oppressive, a natural father of fear, pain, death, and paranoia, and as Solomon moves through his twelve-year journey, he sees all the assorted evils of this system made bare. Ink created from smuggled berries can never wish to contain all the pain and suffering one must feel as a product of this system, and the dim-light of a candle on a stump is more than enough to illuminate all the hatred on Solomon Northup’s studied face. That face, always so calm on the face of terror, can not take anymore. His soul, strong as it is, is collapsing.
Throughout the course of the movie, it is easy to see the genius in what McQueen has accomplished: instead of turning his camera away from the horrors that Solomon must face, McQueen – a black man from Britain, the material then being both a personal statement for the artist as well as being removed enough from all the history that came after the fall of slavery to be objective and therefore pure, the film possessing both a beating heart and an academic mind that says this is the face of evil, this is what we are capable of doing to each other – uses his camera to bring us ever closer Solomon, to take us on an odyssey alongside the evils of slavery, to give us a glimpse on how this affects a man as intelligent and senstive as Mr. Northup. This a documentary approach to these integral part of the American story, ugly as it is, and the viewer feels truth in this – remember what is was like the first time you sat down and watched Schindler’s List and found yourself unable to look away. Like Spielberg’s film, McQueen’s able, probing, and thoughtful camera gives us extra-helpings of human decency – for example: Solomon’s first “Master,” Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), recognizes his intelligence and gifts him a violin, not to mention watching over him as the collective shitheads of a Louisiana community wish to hang him – and the callousness of deal souls and vicious hearts, best personified by the malevolent, not to mention psychotic, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Fassbender, in what is arguably the most convincing — not to mention ruthless and bone-chilling — performance in the movie, gives us honesty through his hatred – the unspoken honesty that all the cruelties he has inflicted on the innocent is rotting his heart out from the inside.
It is not spoken, and Epps does his best to hide it via a cocktail of animalism and old-time religion; but as humans we understand that your eyes and your actions betray you, and by the end of this film Epps can no longer hide just how deep the rot goes. He is losing control over all he holds certain; he drinks hypocrisy right alongside the whiskey he drinks from a flash whenever he can get the chance. He is losing control, he is losing power, and he wishes to establish his “dominance” and “authority” the only way he knows how: through subjugation. The more he beats and punishes Solomon, and the more he brutalizes and rapes Patsy (the elegant and ever-lovely Lupita Nyong’o, a hero in her own time), the greater the smell of the rot. It is hard to imagine that a man as brutal as Epps can even harbor a rot – don’t you need a soul to watch it shake & crumble?? – but somehow he keeps going deeper into his own madness. He has been ripped apart, and everyone around him – especially the slaves – must pay the consequences for the damage to his pride. He is an evil man, and it is hard to pity him.
Was 12 Years a Slave deserving of Best Picture last Sunday? I can’t speak for those Academy voters who admitted to never watching the movie, and that is always a tough (see: impossible) question to answer, since it’s, uh. you know, a subjective question; but, in my humble, useless opinion, skewered by marijuana and many sleepless nights, I believe that I can answer in the affirmative. For every last painstaking step of Solomon Northup’s dark odyssey – twelve years bottled down to some two-hours and twenty-four minutes – I was, to use an overused word, “riveted.” When you consider that this is only McQueen’s third film, one can only hope that we’re seeing a new and provocative auteur come to life. I, like the rest of the public, await his next move.
And yes, I cried like a little bitch at the end. I couldn’t help it — I have a big heart. You know what? Whatever. Stop looking at me like that. I can feel judging me with your eyes. Go to another blog if you wish to read the words of the boring and cold-hearted. I don’t care. (What a movie.)
— Jackson Williams.
reposting this because today because I watched it earlier & enjoyed it. dig.
I waited a week to even start writing this review because of one good, solid reason: I would be unable to be objective about my first viewing of The Dark Knight Rises. It is the third and final film of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, a film that would be best described as what you’d get if you pumped $300 million dollars in to one really badass fireworks finale extravaganza – if you’re an American, and you happened to be alive for any number of 4th of July celebrations, you know the finale. The intensity picks up, the stakes get higher, the platitudes start stacking up and the gigantic terrorist with a voice that sounds like Darth Vader imitating Sean Connery and a body that resembles nothing short of a silverback gorilla starts ruining your world. Why my lack of objectivity? Well, it’s pretty simple to explain, really: my childhood revolved around Batman, and one could even go so far as to say that I’m still what you’d call a – ahem – Batman nerd. In ninety-percent of all childhood photos of me I’m wearing something Batman related, whether it’s me as a baby, asleep, clutching my black-and-yellow blanket with the logo from Burton’s ’89 adaptation; or, maybe you stumble across a picture of me dressed as Batman for Halloween, hunting the streets for candy or The Joker or getting bored and destroying a fucking pumpkin. One year I event went as The Riddler, though admittedly it was pretty goddamn lame). I’ve seen every single Batman movie released in my lifetime at the theater, the notable exception being the 1989 Batman (give me a break, I was only a year old when that movie came out). I even collected the comic books.
Being that I’ve dilligently made sure to catch all the previous Batman movies in theaters – a dilligence that I’m sure my parents enjoyed the hell out of – I’ve also been exposed to some real disappointment. The Schumacher incarnations were mostly garbage, and in some aspects the Burton movies can start to look kind of flimsy when put under the microscope. But, alas came Christopher Nolan, a writer and director who vowed to bring Batman back down to Earth, rendering our iconic hero as a noir-ish piece of hyper-reality and moral fable – part spectacle, part psychological examination of how one man can use all his resources to battle pain and fear and anarchy just to bring hope to one relatively shitty city, a city that views him as a murderer, albeit one wrongly accused of murder.
The film begins eight years after the end of The Dark Knight, a time when Gotham is seemingly at peace. Batman has disappeared, Rachel is dead, The Joker is cackling away somewhere deep inside Arkham Asylum, Harvey Dent died a monster but because of a lie he is now viewed as a matyr and, because of his death, the Harvey Dent Act is passed, a highly effective piece of legislation that locks various criminals and mafiosos away en masse. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, shunning himself away from a world that has nothing to offer him. His various injuries and damaged soul has caused him to become disengaged from the world, a regular old Howard Hughes, and because of this disengagement the company his father built, Wayne Enterprises – the source of our hero’s incredible wealth – is starting to tank. He invested a bunch of money in to the pet project of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a fusion reactor that with a little bit of creativity can be turned in to a fairly powerful nuclear weapon. You know, your standard mixture of psychosis and science invented all in the name of clean energy for Gotham. You can probably see where this is going. Go science. On top of being hobbled and making investments in clean energy/nuclear weapons, there’s a rat bastard on the board of directors named John Daggett – a douchebag name if you’ve ever heard one – who would really, really like to wrest control of Wayne Enterprises from Bruce and knock the rich weirdo down a peg or two.
How does Mr. Daggett plan on taking control of Wayne Enterprises? He fucking hires Bane (Tom Hardy) to help in his incredibly aggressive takeover. If Daggett was a smarter man, he would’ve realized that you should never, under any circumstances, hire a gigantic mercenary who only goes by one name, especially when that name is as sinister sounding as Bane. Bane is hyper-intelligent and massive, not to mention ruthless, cold, and filled with enough willpower to pull off taking an entire city hostage. As part of the master plan, Bane pulls off an attack on the stock exchange and with some stolen fingerprints acquired from Bruce Wayne by the cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, looking as hot as ever), he successfully bankrupts the Batman and in the process pulls the reclusive hero out of hiding, setting the stage for the massive spectacle that is the majority that is The Dark Knight Rises.
When you view this movie as the end of the trilogy, you can understand why Christopher Nolan would want to end everything with a bang. Nolan has a special eye for spectacle and at points you can tell that he’s going absolutely fucking nuts with the possibilities of how big he can make this movie. While this is an admirable pursuit, it also leads to the movie’s biggest problem: how drawn-out the motherfucker feels at points. Half-way through the film I started to have the sneaking suspicion that the movie was showing all the signs of being a bloated manic-depressive, a massive hulk of a movie that can at some stretches grind to a halt, slow and miserable and draped in despair, and then all of a sudden go delirious and haywire, dazzling the eyes with gunfire and explosions and heroism. Even with the amps turned up to eleven – seriously, how cool was the final forty-five minutes of this movie? — you begin to get dizzy with just how many plot-points are being juggled and thrown at you. There’s Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) getting shot and spending a majority of a movie in a hospital bed; there’s an idealistic young beat cop/detective played named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who plays a significant role in the final battle for Gotham City; romance is in even thrown in, with Batman being obsessed with Selina and Bruce being wooed by the idealism (and amazing tits) of Miranda Tate. In bringing everything to an epic, booming finale, Nolan took on too much and thus gave the movie the feeling of just going through the motions until Bane finally makes his appearance known.
But, when the movie is hitting its stride, it’s un-freaking-believable. Bane is stronger and faster than Batman, maybe even smarter than him too, and when he finally breaks the Dark Knight and takes Gotham hostage – easy to do when you blow all the bridges and get a hold of a new-age nuclear weapon – the movie finally finds its footing after the laborious early chapters. He condemns Bruce to a prison where there is seemingly no hope of escaping and then turns takes over Gotham, using a bunch of weapons stolen from Wayne Enterprises’ R & D department to control the streets and set up a sort of extreme version of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He even lures the police department underground and then sets off some well-placed explosives to trap them all beneath the city.
At times it can feel like the movie is trying to bury you with pure spectacle, but through this cloud of information the movie can be absolutely captivating. Hardy had the hardest task of all trying to follow-up Heath Ledger’s iconic take on The Joker, but he wields the character Bane like a hammer, brutal and bone-chilling with that processed voice; Hardy, with his size and commitment to the character, controls the entire screen with presence alone. Just by standing on the steps of Blackgate Prison, holding aloft an indictment of the public officials who lied to cover up the true demise of Harvey Dent, you can just feel the savage, defiant evil speaking directly to you. He is evil incarnate, ready to burn Gotham to the ground and stare coldly out as the city rips itself apart in mass anarchy. By the time Batman arrives for the final battle for the streets of Gotham and the twists begin to reveal themselves, the Batman we knew from the earlier two films – shunned and misunderstood, more folk legend than hero – has now become The Dark Knight, the protector of Gotham, leading the forces of good against those who wish to destroy the city his parents helped turn in to a metropolis.
Nearly a week later, all introspection almost put to rest, I can’t help but feel conflicted about the film. As much as the film is an absolute fucking blast, it was also bloated and heavy; as much as I wanted to see Batman beat the shit out of Bane, I also had a harder time caring about the stakes, especially his connections to Selina Kyle and Miranda Tate. This film is bigger than its predecessors but with those films I actually felt invested in what was going on, whereas with this one I was left feeling like it was all a hollow exercise in explosions and Moral Philosophy 101. It was like what you get when you combine an incredible action movie with a lesson in civics, like mixing School House Rock meets a summer blockbuster.
Final thought? If I had to give it a grade, I’d give it a B…it’s worth the ticket price, but if you’re expecting anything transcendent like all the godawful fanboys were expecting, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Just enjoy the show and don’t expect too much.
P.S.: rot in hell, James Holmes. Rot in hell.
— Jackson Williams.